Two experts say time is right for Washington to pursue normal relations with Iran and recognize its legitimate regional and international role. Other leading scholars back this call for detente.
Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/10/mahmoud_ahmadinejad_columbia.jpgMahmoud Ahmadinejad (Wikimedia)
Just in time for a presidential election in which the economy has overshadowed foreign policy, two former Bush administration aides are calling for a “grand bargain” with Iran.
Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett, a married couple who served as Iran experts at the National Security Council during George W. Bush’s first term, have issued a call for “thorough-going strategic rapprochement” with the Islamic Republic of Iran, which is still on the State Dept.’s list of sponsors of terrorism.
Under the auspices of the New America Foundation, a Washington policy organization where Flynt Leverett is now a scholar in residence, the two former NSC staff members contend that only by “clarifying America’s willingness to have normal relations with the Islamic Republic and recognizing a legitimate regional and international role for Iran” can Washington resolve its concerns about Iran’s terrorism connections and nuclear-energy production.
The Leveretts’ proposal comes as Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain are continuing their arguments about the proper place for negotiations with Tehran. Last year, Obama offered to negotiate with the Iranians “without preconditions.” In an interview with the New York Times, he clarified his position, saying that he would use “aggressive personal diplomacy,” combined with economic inducements, to address the sources of U.S.-Iranian antagonism.
McCain has regularly portrayed Obama’s approach as naive. Negotiating with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, McCain said in the Sept. 26 presidential debate, would “give a propaganda platform to a person that is espousing the extermination of the state of Israel, and therefore then giving them more credence in the world arena.”
Ahmadinejad, by any measure an anti-Semite, has been repeatedly misquoted by conservatives and never called for the extermination of Israel. McCain’s running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, has claimed, without evidence, that Iran seeks a “second Holocaust” for the Jews.
In any case, McCain added that he would “sit down with anybody, but there’s got to be pre-conditions,” suggesting that his approach to the Islamic Republic might go beyond his infamous “bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran” joke.
The Leveretts pitch their proposal as transcending liberal or conservative perspectives. Their key point is that the approach adopted by Democratic and Republican administrations for 30 years — “isolation and economic pressure” matched with “thinly veiled threats of regime change,” to use Flynt Leverett’s phrase — “is not working by any definition of ‘working’ you could care to employ,” he said.
Other experts seem to agree.
“The only real posture we can have that will, in any way, be more likely to be effective is to do two things,” said Hooman Majd, author of “The Ayatollah Begs To Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran”: “one, eliminate military threats and the regime-change policy, and two, to indicate that we are perfectly willing to sit down and discuss our problems and our areas of mutual interest.”
Last year, an influential Iran scholar, Ray Takeyh, published a call for “detente” with Iran in Foreign Affairs, the journal of the Council on Foreign Relations. He called for a similar but less far-reaching strategic shift.
“Washington must eschew superficially appealing military options, the prospect of conditional talks and its policy of containing Iran in favor of a new policy of détente,” Takeyh wrote. “In particular, it should offer pragmatists in Tehran a chance to resume diplomatic and economic relations.”
Alex Rossmiller, a former intelligence analyst with the Defense Intelligence Agency, also supports this approach. “It’s hard to overstate the importance of engaging in comprehensive dialogue with Iran,” Rossmiller said.
In essence, the Leveretts’ proposal is an attempt to settle all areas of U.S.-Iranian conflict — from Iranian rejection of Arab-Israeli peace, for example, to periodic U.S. threats against the Iranian government.
The couple rejects an incremental approach in favor of putting “all [issues] on the table at the same time,” Flynt Leverett said in an address at the New America Foundation last Tuesday. “That’s the only way relations will improve.”
The result sought by the Leveretts is “a normal relationship” between Washington and Tehran, according to Flynt Leverett, with the U.S. accepting “a legitimate role” for Iran in the Middle East.
Yet when asked by The Washington Independent what sort of role they envisioned, neither author entirely answered the question.
For example, Iran offers financial and military support for Hamas and Hezbollah, two leading extremist organizations that reject normalized relations with Israel. Flynt Leverett said that demanding “no contact” with Hamas and Hezbollah would be unrealistic. Instead, he said that Washington could successfully negotiate “what kind of relationship” would be acceptable to the U.S. and Israel for Iran to maintain with both radical entities.
He did not offer his own definition of what kind of relationship would satisfy Iranian, U.S. and Israeli interests.
Hillary Mann Leverett, now affiliated with the Stratega consulting firm, argued at the New America address last week that the Iranians, at high levels, strongly desire the end to U.S.-Iranian animosity. She said she “participated for two years in almost monthly meetings with Amb. Ryan Crocker to coordinate” U.S.-Iranian counterterrorism efforts in Afghanistan after 9/11, before hard-line Bush administration officials canceled them in favor of a more aggressive approach.
During those talks, she said, “Rafsanjani, Khatami and Ahmadinejad officials told us that they hoped [the talks] would lead to a broader strategic opening” — referring to previous and current Iranian governments.
“It may be frustrating to contemplate offering carrots to Iran,” noted Rossmiller, “but as we’ve seen in countries such as North Korea and Libya, comprehensive negotiation is vital for our security goals — goals that will not be achieved by further belligerence and refusal to engage.”
For the Iranians, the Leveretts contend, the overriding strategic concern is to keep the Islamic Republic alive against outside threats. Currently, U.S. forces are in adjacent Afghanistan and Iraq, and U.S. warships patrol the Persian Gulf to its south.
Other experts agree. “Ayatollah Khamenei’s No. 1 priority is the preservation of the fruit of the Iranian revolution — he views the continued existence of the Islamic Republic as an Islamic Republic as a first-order goal — to which all other goals can be subordinated,” said Matt Duss, a fellow at the Center for American Progress.
In addition, Hillary Mann Leverett said, Iranian diplomats and military officers told her that they fear hostile relations from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, two key U.S. allies, as well as the weight of the Sunni Arab states to its west. Its neighbors “are all strategic adversaries,” she said, leaving the Iranians with “nowhere to go.”
The Iranians view better relations with Washington as key to achieving a lasting reduction of tensions with its neighbors. Tehran was reportedly shocked when Washington rejected its post-9/11 overtures for peace, leading to the increased Iranian hostility of the past five years.
It is unclear, of course, whether U.S.-Iranian talks could result in the grand bargain that the Leveretts propose. The history between the two nations creates fertile ground for skepticism. In 1953, the Central Intelligence Agency assisted the British in overthrowing an Iranian government that opposed British oil interests, a coup that many Iranians still consider an affront to their national pride.
Washington, meanwhile, vividly recalls the 1979 occupation of the U.S. embassy in Tehran, in which Iranian revolutionaries held 52 U.S. diplomats hostage for 444 days.
“It doesn’t mean that we can reach a ‘grand bargain’ very soon,” Majd said.
“The critical point is to recognize that Iran has a set of legitimate interests, and that any bargain has to take those interests into account,” said Robert Farley, a national security professor at the University of Kentucky’s Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce, in an email. “In some cases those interests run counter to ours, but a grand bargain isn’t about giving the Iranians everything they want. Rather, it’s about figuring out where and how the United States and Iran can compromise, such that they can enjoy the benefits of a cordial (if not friendly) relationship. Those benefits are immense on both the security and the economic sides.”
Majd added that there was a path forward for fruitful negotiation. “The Iranians have made it crystal clear that they are willing to meet with the U.S. and negotiate — as long as pre-conditions are not attached,” Majd said.
“Pre-conditions, to the Iranians, are insulting, plain and simple.” Majd continued. “It’s as if they are being treated as second-rate. And their overriding concerns are to be treated with respect as a sovereign nation, and to maintain the stability of the regime. They fully understand that the second part, maintaining the stability, requires full engagement with the West. And that includes the U.S.”
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